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Building Mountain Bike Mecca: IMBA's New Ride Center Initiative

A new approach to trail advocacy: International Mountain Bicycling Association is creating model mountain bike meccas— IMBA Ride Centers— around the country.

By Philip Keyes
International Mountain Bicycling Association

Close your eyes and imagine mountain bike heaven.

My dirt dream melds all the best aspects of Fruita, Whistler, Kingdom Trails and Moab: never-ending singletrack, beautiful vistas, a killer bike shop, great places to grab grub, a cool campground or comfy B&B, a pub, a coffee shop. In short, a full-featured mountain bike mecca for epic rides as well as a great place for me to bring the whole family without driving all day to get there.

At the heart of the IMBA Ride Centers are the trails, professionally designed for mountain biking and built to accommodate the full gamut of riders from expert to novice, from long singletrack epics to family-friendly loops, along with areas to provide options for downhilling and freeriding. Each center would bring in a different constellation of partners to add value and support to the destination: bike shops, campgrounds, hotels, restaurants, ski resorts, and transportation links to the local communities. And at the nucleus of each center would be a vibrant IMBA-affiliated mountain bike group to steward the trails, build community and take mountain bike advocacy to a professional level in the process.

Five of the centers are already in production in Santos, Florida; Cuyuna Lakes, Minnesota; Fraser Valley, Colorado; Long Valley, Idaho; and Uwharrie Mountains, North Carolina; and others in the pipeline could also come online over the next few years.

Building IMBA Ride Centers is IMBA's number one task for the next five years, and the man entrusted to make this happen is Scott Linnenburger, IMBA's Director of Field Operations. Scott's a capable guy who knows hard work and plays well with others. He cut his teeth as a member of IMBA's Trail Care Crew and now manages Trail Solutions, IMBA's fee-based trail building service. I tracked him down while he was on the road visiting two future IMBA Ride Centers in Florida and North Carolina to get both the details and the big picture of IMBA's Ride Center initiative.

How are IMBA Ride Centers a new approach to advocacy?

Mountain bike advocacy is traditionally driven by reactive processes, starting with access battles and working with agencies from the local to the federal level. Now it's time we turn the tables and take a new pro-active approach. We think that developing these purpose-built trail centers is an important pro-active step. Nothing makes a situation better on the trail than to have a full-service facility for all types of riders, whether it's getting bikes, getting parts, getting food, or getting lodging. All of these will be integrated into the Ride Centers, and if not on the actual premises, then not far away. We want the Ride Centers to be an amenity to the larger community, connected by a greenway system, rail trail or some kind of shuttle system, as well as have them build a strong community of riders.

How is IMBA going about developing partnerships with the private sector for lodgings, bike shops, pubs?

You've got to find folks that are willing to think outside the typical box of what's out there. We've had a lot of exposure and assisted quite a bit with Scotland's Stains and the Welch mountain biking projects in the U.K., and what they've done over there in bringing in outside concessionaires, bike shops, and food vendors is incredible. Those are the kind of partners that we need to find in both the public and private sector, whether it's a state park that's willing to bring in a private concessionaire, such as a bike shop, or whether it's a private entity like a resort that wants to be a focal point for an entire region's riding. Beyond that, it's about reaching out to the public, to mountain bike clubs or shared use groups, like the Mountain Trails Foundation in Park City. There needs to be an incredible club with a professional presence that can steward this facility throughout time.

What role will IMBA have to these Ride Centers once they are up and running over the long haul?

It will depend on the facility, but we hope the Ride Center will become a key base of operations for a statewide or regional organization that's affiliated with IMBA. We keep trying to build the pie, and that means the exposure factor will help grow all the groups involved. IMBA is not likely to get into the land ownership game or the land management game. We see our role as being able to facilitate partnerships and bring folks to the table around a common idea, and figure out who's best able to organize and run such a facility.

What are the criteria being used to select potential Ride Centers?

There are a number of factors. One of the big goals we have is to put really high quality and really high mileage recreational experiences closer to more and more people. There are a lot of iconic mountain bike destinations out there, such as Crested Butte or Moab or Downieville, but they're hours and hours away from most people. That's great for the enthusiast, but the casual rider in Metropolitan, USA, probably hasn't even heard of these places. To build more mountain bikers and more organization around the sport we need to have more people riding. And that means getting larger and more prevalent riding locations near to many more people.

The biggest dependent asset for any potential ride center is a really unified vision of what the place could be and the partnerships around that vision that can realize it. We want to bring all the parties together, have our professional staff focus on the projects, and help figure out different ways to raise more funds for the partnerships to work seamlessly. We want to get the trails designed and constructed, and work with the different partners to bring in outside amenities. There has to be the full sweep of a huge vision, a great group of partners, and a willingness of all parties to go down this road together to create something that's really special.

How many Centers will be brand new and how many will be building on existing trail systems?

I think in every location it will be some mix of both. We've got a lot of trails at the state and federal level that are not very sustainable, that weren't ever designed for a positive riding experience. Many of the existing trails will probably need to be re-routed or replaced with something that provides a much higher value in terms of a riding experience. Where the Ride Center partners with resorts and other private entities, we'll be building a lot of new trail to satisfy the need for more gravity opportunities. However, I think the riding at any particular place that becomes an IMBA Ride Center will be substantially different in five years than it is today.

How do you see these Centers becoming educational and community centers as well as riding areas?

Santos is a great example. We've been working with the folks at the Ocala Mountain Bike Association going on four or five years now, and Santos is a good example of a Ride Center that's relatively well-developed through that process. Going in and re-routing trails and building a freeride park offers a lot of possibilities for additional education by bringing land managers, trail advocates, and recreation advocates into those places to show them how we've gotten around certain problems, and how to build capacity in a local or regional affiliation of clubs and take that kind of group to a professional status. If we can offer these kinds of community building courses at these places that have great trails and have the support structure of that stewarding organization, then it kind of sets the picture in place for folks to come in and get those educational services.

So it's likely that the local group responsible for the upkeep of the IMBA Ride Center would become a professional organization?

Yes, this is going to be really important, and it's important for the mountain bike movement as a whole to become more professional. Having full time staff, whether it's a seasonal trail crew or other paid staffers, is vital to the success of this whole program.

Will the centers become "pay-to-play"?

There will probably be components of that at every ride center. If we're looking at a place that has a ski resort or other private entity that provides a lot of the gravity kind of offerings that public land managers often have a difficult time providing, then those kinds of areas take a lot of funds to maintain, change and keep fresh with the sport. Ski areas in particular will always be pay-to-play type of situations. Everybody needs to figure out what the best budgetary method is for going through that process. In some cases, it might be a capital campaign to create an endowment that provides for funding for a seasonal trail crew, and the interest from that endowment keeps multiplying to keep that trail crew out there every year doing work. This could help get away from a pay-to-play type of situation on a public property. There are lots of different ways to skin a cat.

How has the bike industry stepped up to help support the development of IMBA Ride Centers?

The first two folks to step up big were Trek and Quality Bicycle Parts, who are both donating a sum of money on every mountain bike that they sell towards IMBA, and this kind of a project of putting more great trails on the ground. We've had great corporate support in California from Specialized in getting our advocacy team organized to solve problems and get more trails on the ground. I think the bike industry is starting to figure out a new way to do things. Companies can always put money into R&D and keep technology moving forward, but it's time to put some money down and make sure we keep the sport moving forward too.

And from the private sector, what sort of groups have stepped up so far?

It's interesting. Whenever we've found the right partners and the right land, everything just starts working together. Whether it's a "friends of " group or supporters of a greenway or rail trail that runs in or near to the park, they've stepped forward and said, "Wow, this is incredible. We want to support you." In Minnesota, we've gotten that kind of support from a Friends of the Greenway group for an IMBA Ride Center and from that spawned different legislation to find more public funding for that trail system. In that project there was $700,000 allocated out of an appropriation for the economic development this trail system would spur. We're getting private interest from the bike industry, we're getting private interest from outside local and regional groups, and we're going to keep banging the door on public funds for these kinds of facilities.

There are five IMBA Ride Centers currently in development. How many more will there be in the next five years? What's the goal and the benchmark?

Our board has set out the benchmark of fully developing these five centers in the next five years. As we all know, putting new trails on public lands can be a time-consuming process and five years is going to keep us all working really hard. But looking into the future, we want to create these ride centers in ways that are scaleable, so other groups can pick up the ball and work with us and say, "Hey, we've got a good opportunity here, let's make the best out of this and make something here as well." So I couldn't even tell you how many might be created. It's a situation where it's a great idea, and if it snowballs, there could be one of these Ride Centers within a weekend driving distance of every rider in the country.

For more information:

Scott Linnenburger, Director Of Field Programs
International Mountain Bicycling Association
PO Box 7578, Boulder, CO, 80306
ph: 303-545-9011 x 117 - fax: 303-545-9026
email: scott@imba.com - web: http://www.imba.com

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